After a stunning defeat in Oregon, the 2009 USC football season can turn one of two directions when the Trojans visit Arizona State.
The USC Trojans (6-2, 3-2 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press and BCS rankings and No. 13 in the USA Today coaches' poll, hit the road for the final time in 2009 this Saturday, November 7, to face the Arizona State Sun Devils (4-4, 2-3) at 5 p.m. (PDT) at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., and in front of a regional ABC audience. It is the 26th meeting in the series, with the Trojans holding a 16-9 edge. USC has won nine in a row over the Sun Devils, including a 28-0 whitewash a season ago in the Coliseum. In the last meeting in Tempe, the Trojans routed the Sun Devils, 44-24, on Thanksgiving night 2007.
A week ago, the Trojans suffered their worst defeat of the Pete Carroll Era, as Oregon rolled up an astonishing 613 yards of total offense in a 47-20 victory. It was USC's first defeat by more than a touchdown since a 2001 loss at Notre Dame, and the Trojans' most sizeable loss since 1997. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils fell, 23-21, to visiting California, on a final-minute field goal. ASU had rallied from an early 14-0 deficit to take a 21-20 lead earlier in the final stanza.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (94-17, 61-12 in the Pac-10), having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Arizona State headman Dennis Erickson (167-79-1 in 21 college seasons, 19-14 in Tempe) is in his third season in the desert. After notching a 10-3 mark in his first season at ASU, Erickson's teams have been treading water ever since, unable to maintain consistency on either side of the ball. While the Devils do have playmakers on offense, the group has struggled in 2009, while the ASU defense has played well for long stretches - but also suffered breakdowns at key times.
Arizona State Offense Offensive coordinator Rich Olson's group, while boasting a number of senior starters, still began the season with a lack of experience at key positions. Injuries along the offensive line and to the receiving corps have also led to the Devils ranking seventh in the conference in rushing, passing and scoring offense and eighth in total offense. While the ASU still runs a three-receiver, single-back set similar to the offense Erickson's Oregon State teams ran earlier in the decade, it hasn't had the consistent success on the ground that the Beavers have had. The passing game, in the hands of senior QB Danny Sullivan, has been up and down. The Devils like to throw the ball downfield a lot in their attack, meaning plenty of five- and seven-step drops. Sullivan's been sacked just 13 times - a major improvement for ASU over recent seasons - but has completed fewer than 55 percent of his passes, with eight TDs and seven interceptions. Freshman Brock Osweiler has seen action in four games and sophomore Samson Szakacsy, a former USC recruit, threw the first pass of his career, for a touchdown, out of a Wildcat-style formation last week - something to keep an eye out for this weekend.
The Devil quarterbacks do have a solid group of receivers to throw to - when they are all healthy. Senior Chris McGaha is the leader. One of the best possession receivers in the conference - and with surprising speed - McGaha has 39 grabs for a 12.3 average and three scores. He's joined by speedy senior Kyle Williams, who also has three TDs (including an 80-yarder last weekend) among his 37 catches, and sophomore Gerell Robinson, who has 19 catches. Robinson is limited in practice this week with an ankle problem, but junior Kerry Taylor, who's been out for three games with a hamstring issue, is expected to return to the fold this week. Sophomore T.J. Simpson, who has started three games, is out with an ankle injury. Senior Jovon Williams has six catches from the tight end spot.
The Devils are averaging less than 133 yards per game on the ground, as the program's struggles to find consistency in the running attack have continued. Bruising senior Dmitri Nance has carried the bulk of the load, gaining 472 yards on a 4.3 ypc average with five touchdowns. He's also caught 20 passes out of the backfield, but has been limited in practice with a shoulder injury suffered against Cal. Freshman Cameron Marshall picked up for him last week, gaining 71 yards on 16 carries against the Bears and would start if Nance is limited. Speedy sophomore Ryan Bass is the rarely used third option.
The Arizona State offensive line is a veteran group that has, at least, improved its quarterback protection. Senior left tackle Shaun Lauvao, an all-conference candidate, is the group's leader. Junior Jon Hargis has been solid at left guard and senior center Thomas Altieri had been enjoying a stellar year before a knee injury kept him out of last week's game. He's questionable for Saturday, but sophomore Garth Gerhart, who had started twice at right guard, was serviceable in his stead last week. Injuries and inconsistency have hampered that RG spot, and senior Brent Good is the most recent of four different starters at that spot. Senior Tom Njunge is the right tackle.
Arizona State Defense Defensive coordinator Craig Bray's unit has put together an unexpectedly good season, leading the conference in rushing defense (80.1 yards per game, fourth nationally), third-down defense and total defense. With returning leadership in each group - senior defensive end Dexter Davis up front, senior Mike Nixon at linebacker and senior Ryan McFoy in the secondary - the Devils have also seen some young players come of age. ASU's secondary has faced some injury issues at one corner spot, and if they have a soft spot in the group, it is against downfield passing attacks. Still, the Sun Devils are allowing just 19 points per game and last week became only the third team to hold Cal's Jahvid Best under 100 yards rushing this season. ASU has also been a turnover-causing machine - with 13 interceptions, eight fumble recoveries and a +7 turnover margin.
Up front, Davis has faced double-team after double-team after notching 21.5 sacks the past two seasons. He has just 1.5 sacks thus far in 2009, but his presence has opened up opportunities for the rest of the line. Sophomore James Brooks entered the starting lineup at Oregon State in game four and remains, notching 3.5 sacks among his 12 tackles. Reserve ends Dean DeLeone and Jamar Jarrett have combined for two sacks in limited duty. Inside, tackles Lawrence Guy, a sophomore, and Saia Falahola, a junior, have played well. Each has 21 stops, while Guy has a team-leading 4.5 sacks and Falahola is right behind him with four. Freshman William Sutton has been impressive rotating in both spots.
The ball-hawking Nixon leads ASU with 49 tackles and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions from his weak side spot. He always seems to be around the ball. True freshman and former USC recruit Vontaze Burfict has come on strong, starting the past five games after taking over for senior Gerald Munns at middle linebacker. He's a physical beast and is second on the team with 43 tackles, including a pair of sacks. Senior Travis Goethel is a real gamer on the strong side. Not a specimen like Burfict, Goethel uses his football smarts to rank third on the team with 33 stops. Sophomore Brandon Magee has impressed in spot duty behind Nixon, with 28 tackles.
Honors candidate Omar Bolden, a junior cornerback, looked to be the lockdown corner Bray needed at the start of the year. But a balky knee has had him bouncing in and out of the lineup, and he's questionable this weekend. Senior Terell Carr has been decent in his place, with 24 tackles and six passes broken up. Senior Pierre Singfield mans the other corner, and has 28 stops. McFoy has become the de facto leader of the group at strong safety. The younger brother of former USC receiver Chris McFoy, he has 30 tackles and three interceptions. Senior free safety Jerell Holman also has three picks.
Arizona State Special Teams The Sun Devils boast two of the best kicking game threats around. Junior placekicker Thomas Weber, a two-time Playboy All-America selection, has battled injuries this year, but is six-of-nine on field goals. Reserve Bobby Wenzig, a freshman, has gone three-of-four in his stead. Junior punter Trevor Hankins leads the conference with a 45.5-yard average, and has four punts of more than 60 yards. Receiver Williams is a dangerous punt returner, and is averaging 9.4 yards per, while freshmen Jamal Miles and Keelan Johnson share kick return duties.
USC Offensive Gameplan All in all, it's hard to pin much, if any, of the blame for last week's embarrassment at Oregon on the Trojan offense. On the contrary, a group dealing with a rash of injuries to skill players and led by a true freshman quarterback actually kept USC in the game through the midway point of the third quarter, trailing only 27-20 before the roof caved in completely on the Trojan defense. Certainly, one would have liked to see more of Allen Bradford following his breakout performance a week before, but the Ducks' pass defense was an inviting target for Jeremy Bates and John Morton, even with the statistics Oregon had compiled against mostly poor competition. USC missed tight end Anthony McCoy in a big way (and will do so again this weekend, it appears), as two Matt Barkley passes deep down the middle that McCoy would have been likely to grab - and may have turned into touchdowns - were just off target to the step-slower Blake Ayles. This is not to blame Ayles in any way, but rather to point out that Barkley's timing on those patterns is clearly more attuned, at this point, to the more athletic McCoy.
This week, it appears that those looking for the Trojans to exploit the power rushing game displayed by Bradford may be disappointed once again. The Sun Devils have been very tough against the run, with the middle of their defensive line and linebacking corps performing admirably. And while ASU does have 21 sacks this year, teams have been able to exploit them in the middle of the field in the passing game more than anywhere else this season.
The Trojans' speed might be best utilized in the passing game, utilizing the backs and tight ends as well. In recent seasons, the Devils have tended to lay back in their zone pass defense, not blitzing heavily against USC. Two years ago, John David Booty picked apart such a Sun Devil game plan in Tempe. However, ASU has improved its athleticism at linebacker and in the secondary and has been using more blitz packages so far in 2009. It will be interesting to see how the Devils attack the USC offense. From the get-go, however, expect a pass-to-set-up-the-run game plan from the Trojans.
USC Defensive Gameplan Three items appeared to be missing during much of the past six quarters of USC defensive football: know your assignment; play your assignment; and tackle the ball carrier
Getting back to these basics is the only place to start this week for USC. The Devil offense is not nearly as good as the past three offenses the Trojans have seen, but it does have some threats. Keeping it simple, stopping the run and getting after the quarterback are the prescriptions against a Devil offensive scheme that, in recent years, has essentially played right into the USC defense's strengths.
The emphasis on stripping the football and forcing turnovers appears to have hampered USC's tackling. Cut it out - hit the man, wrap the man, take the man down. The USC secondary seems to have gone from a "bend-don't-break" theory to merely meek and incapable of locating a possible interception. Ratchet up the intensity, while maintaining your position. See the ball as well as the receiver. This is simple stuff. Saturday is the time to see whether this group of USC defenders is capable of executing the simple stuff again, with a measure of intensity and aggression.
The Pick For the first time in many seasons, USC fans saw a Trojan team look baffled on the field. It's been a long time since a Trojan team has shown that kind of doubt in itself - and, make no mistake, the Oregon Ducks deserve most of the credit for that. Oregon played a nearly perfect football game last Saturday - its offense found its tempo, got USC's defense confused and took a lead sizeable enough to allow its defense to finally fluster Barkley and the USC offense. In fact, upon reflection, it reminded me of what college football observers have become accustomed to seeing the Trojans do to teams in recent years: take the opponent's defensive will away and the use their own defense to deliver the kill shot once the game started to verge on a blowout.
The key to this Saturday's performance is how the Trojans react to their first true beating in many, many years. Emotionally, Carroll is facing one of his toughest tasks since his inaugural campaign in 2001. The Trojans need a strong performance from their defense early on Saturday - any early success by the Sun Devil offense is likely to bring those doubts right back to the top of each USC defender's mind. Because of that, I wouldn't be surprised to see ASU try a couple gadget plays in search of some quick strikes.
Turnovers will obviously be crucial - if ASU is able to nab some early takeaways from Barkley and Co., that will make the defense's work that much tougher. Though ASU has been opportunistic this season, I don't see that happening - Barkley is becoming a leader, and he knows it's on him and the offense to make good things happen early in this game to put USC's defense into a confidence-building situation. In the final analysis, the Sun Devils scheme and personnel on offense simply shouldn't be able to exploit the issues USC has faced recently. The Devils just don't match up well with the Trojans on either side of the ball. Barring a barrage of USC turnovers or a defensive collapse of even more epic proportions, the Trojans should have more than enough to turn the Sun Devils away.
USC 31, Arizona State 16
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.